B’Tselem today (20 March 2018) published a new report – Minors in Jeopardy: Violation of the Rights of Palestinian Minors by Israel’s Military Courts – which analyzes the changes that Israel said it made in the last decade, purportedly to improve the treatment of Palestinian minors in military courts in the West Bank. The report reveals that while serving as useful for propaganda, these technical changes have not improved the protection of minors’ rights. Israel continues to ignore the basic principles that guide juvenile courts within Israel and throughout the world, and especially the principle of “the child’s best interests,” and the understanding that incarcerating a minor must always be a measure of last resort.
Israel has not introduced any changes to the early stages of the process – i.e., the minors' arrest and interrogation – although these phases are crucial to determining the minors’ fate. At these times, the minors are cut off from their environment and held without their parents or legal counsel, surrounded by adults who represent the occupying power. This continues in the interrogation, which is often carried out hours after the arrest, by which time the minors are hungry and exhausted. The interrogators subject them to threats, shouting and even violence until they manage to extract a confession from them, or allegedly incriminating statements against others.
In 2009, Israel established the Military Juvenile Court, which it views as a landmark achievement in the protection of minors’ rights in the military court system. In reality, the new court changed nothing of substance. For one thing, the juvenile court does not hear requests to remand minors in custody, which are heard in the regular courts. Secondly, its function is primarily to sign off on plea bargains already reached between the defense and the prosecution outside the courtroom. This relieves the prosecution from requirement of presenting evidence to prove the allegations set forth in the indictments. Many defendants sign the plea bargains, having been left little choice by the military courts’ detention policy: most minors are held in custody from the time of their arrest until they finish serving their sentence. Carrying out an evidentiary trial from within prison is fraught with difficulties, and the defendants know that if convicted, they will be sentenced to prison anyway, as no alternatives exist. Even in the extremely unlikely case that they are acquitted, the time they spent in custody throughout the trial may be just as long, or even longer, than the time they will spend in prison under a plea bargain.
Israel also claims to have shortened the length of time minors are held in custody in order to increase judicial review of their detention. In fact, this has driven up the frequency of remand hearings, in which the judges almost always remand the minors in custody. Increasing judicial review can only be meaningful in a system that exercises real judicial review of every decision regarding detention, and which views detention as an exceptional means that must be used only as a last resort. Yet the detention of Palestinian minors is standard procedure in the military courts, and presumptions set by the military judges mean the minors are remanded to custody in almost all cases.
Hundreds of Palestinian minors are at the mercy of the military courts every year. According to figures the Israel Prison Service (IPS) provided to B’Tselem, on 28 February 2018 the IPS had 356 Palestinian minors in custody: 95 of them were serving a prison sentence, 257 were in pre- or post- indictment detention, and four were being held in administrative detention.
Creating a false façade of a fair legal system that purports to safeguard the rights of minors tried in its courts serves a political goal: legitimizing the occupation and silencing criticism of it. In the military courts, and the military juvenile court is no exception, the procedures and orders are formulated by Israelis, with no input by Palestinians. They are implemented by soldiers, judges and prosecutors, all uniformed Israelis who represent the occupying power’s interests. In this system, Palestinians are always the suspects, defendants and convicts. With a conviction rate of almost 100%, the military courts can never be a neutral arbiter. On the contrary, they are one of the state’s major mechanisms of occupation, used to oppress the Palestinian population and quell any resistance to Israeli control.
Behind this façade is a regime of occupation that has gone unchecked for fifty years, violently harming millions of people every day. No law, military order, procedure or sentence can obscure this truth.